Garbagehead Revisited

Photo: Jelle Wagenaar

Among the inscrutable terms invented to parse the stylistic subtleties of rock music, “bedroom pop” stands out as an elegantly descriptive coinage. The bedroom in question refers not to the content of the songs but to where they’re produced. These are solo projects, sort of like writing in a diary or sketching on a pad, and in New York, there is practically an epidemic of the stuff. In any given Williamsburg tenement, some off-duty barista is hunched over a rat’s nest of recording gear, emptying his soul into a machine that cost him a year in tips.

These private masterpieces rarely get far from the bedroom, and for that, the rest of us can consider ourselves fortunate. The world is noisy enough, don’t you think?

Sometimes, though, the music not only gets out, it catches on a bit. Which is the story of East River Pipe, a.k.a. F. M. Cornog, an erstwhile “garbagehead”—“a drug addict,” he translates, “who will take anything that is put in front of him”—and now the flooring guy at a Home Depot in New Jersey. When Cornog takes off that orange apron, he goes home to a loving wife, a baby daughter, a skittish Dalmatian, and a roomful of music equipment with which he pursues a secret life as a reclusive pop hero.

What Are You On? is the sixth East River Pipe album, and it is a deeply satisfying work of storytelling through pop. The thirteen songs, meticulously assembled from a simple palette of guitar chords, gentle keyboard riffs, and a drum machine, are about drugs, their fleeting pleasures and lasting complications. The lyrics are dark, funny, bitter, wise, and sad, and the melodies, driven by Cornog’s scorched voice, have a surprising and alluring sweetness.

That Cornog, at age 45, should be at the peak of his creative powers has everything to do with his failures as a younger man. If things had gone right for him from the start, his best days as an artist would almost certainly be behind him. He graduated from high school in the late seventies with “an intense interest in writing songs and getting fucked up,” an optimal résumé for the indie-rock revolution that would soon take off. In Athens, Georgia, there was R.E.M.; in Minneapolis, there were the Replacements; in San Pedro, California, there were the Minutemen. But in Summit, New Jersey, home to the resolutely middle-class Cornog family, there was nothing but a job in a lightbulb factory and a big supply of Rolling Rock and weed.

“If it was today, they probably would’ve said I was depressed and put me on Paxil,” Cornog says. “Back then, I didn’t even know I had a problem, although I sure wanted to take something for it.”

He aggressively self-medicated for the next decade or so, barely clinging to menial jobs, disappearing on binges, sleeping on benches at the Hoboken train station, and occasionally keeping his head clear enough to write and record a few songs. He always intended to form a band, and even came up with the name for one. “I saw a big pipe spewing out raw sewage into the East River, and I thought, I’m the pipe, the sewage is my songs, and the river is the world,” says Cornog. “You can see I felt really good about myself.”

As a band, East River Pipe never happened. Cornog had a collaborator for a while, “a guy with better social skills than mine,” but they couldn’t get it together. “I’m amazed,” he says, “when I read about rock stars who are addicted to drugs and still somehow make albums and go on tour. I only had time for drugs.”

The collaborator proved indispensable in one respect: He introduced Cornog to Barbara Powers, who “had the best record collection of any woman I’d ever met,” says Cornog, as well as superhuman tolerance for dealing with a binge-prone boyfriend. At that point, the only people who’d heard Cornog’s songs were the few friends to whom he’d given cassettes, and Powers took it upon herself to get his music out. From her apartment in Astoria, she created a label called Hell Gate, first putting out homemade tapes, then pressing 45s.

By the early nineties, when Nirvana was on top of the world, agoraphobic outsiders were suddenly the rage. Cornog’s “Helmet On,” about a guy working up the nerve to go inside a gay bar, won Single of the Week honors from the influential British magazine Melody Maker, and East River Pipe looked poised to bust out of the bedroom.

That, too, never happened. Just as the serious offers came flowing in, Kurt Cobain killed himself. In Cobain’s extreme discomfort with the trappings of celebrity and the exigencies of the music business, Cornog saw enough of himself to know he could never survive even a tiny dose of fame. He hated performing live and almost never did it. So he opted for a small indie label that required no touring or promotional chores. As he pulled himself together, he wrote songs with redolent titles like “Shiny Shiny Pimpmobile” and “Stare the Graveyard Down.” A stable relationship and the semblance of a daily routine helped him gradually stretch the time between binges—a week, then a month, then six months, and finally a good, long spell of sobriety.

Major labels kept sniffing around, and finally Cornog bit on an irresistible offer from EMI America—a five-record deal at $75,000 a pop, no strings attached. But before the deal was a month old, the label was shut by its global parent, which turned out to be a huge gift. Cornog got paid in full, without recording a single note. He and Powers took the money and ran, finding a house they could afford in the now-fashionable Summit. Cornog went to work at Home Depot and “became the closest I’ve ever been to a regular guy.”

Though now a decade (and counting) since his last binge, What Are You On? shows how powerfully drugs still inhabit his imagination. These songs aren’t about the bravura of recovery—no Oprah-certified material here. Rather, they’re set deep in the muck of drug abuse. “Crystal Queen” is a twisted ode to crystal meth; “Druglife” is about a relationship buckling under the stress of addiction. It starts with a confrontation:

“Hey, where’s my pills? / They were sitting on the windowsill / Should have known something was wrong / When last week you tossed my favorite bong / Now it’s gone.”The despair is leavened with comic rhyming, but the song ends ominously:“If it comes down to the drugs or you / Baby, we’re through / ’Cause you’re messing with my druglife.”

These days, there are a million weepy balladeers painting life’s little letdowns as the heartbreak of the century. But Cornog’s wit and lyrical ingenuity save him from the trap of self-pity. His years of underachievement also serve him well. What Are You On? is emotionally complex in a way that few of the more prosperous songwriters of Cornog’s generation are capable of producing at this point in their careers. In Cornog’s voice, for instance, you hear echoes of the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg, the guy with “one foot in the door, the other one in the gutter” and his distinctive tone of wounded stoicism. Westerberg soared to greater heights than East River Pipe will ever reach, but who’s better off now? Westerberg ran out of things to say years ago, while Cornog is still able to tap into the pathos of his former life and find new stories to tell.

What Are You On? East River Pipe. Merge.

Garbagehead Revisited